The American attitude toward the French Revolution has been generally favorable—naturally enough for a nation itself born in revolution. But as revolutions go, the French one in 1789 was among the worst. True, in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it overthrew a corrupt regime. Yet what these fine ideals led to was, first, the Terror and mass murder in France, and then Napoleon and his wars, which took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and Russia. After this pointless slaughter came the restoration of the same corrupt regime that the Revolution overthrew. Aside from immense suffering, the upheaval achieved nothing.

Leading the betrayal of the Revolution’s initial ideals and its transformation into a murderous ideological tyranny was Maximilien Robespierre, a monster who set up a system expressly aimed at killing thousands of innocents. He knew exactly what he was doing, meant to do it, and believed he was right to do it. He is the prototype of a particularly odious kind of evildoer: the ideologue who believes that reason and morality are on the side of his butcheries. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot are of the same mold. They are the characteristic scourges of humanity in modern times, but Robespierre has a good claim to being the first. Understanding his motives and rationale deepens our understanding of the worst horrors of the recent past and those that may lurk in the future.

Historians distinguish three phases of the French Revolution. The last, the Terror, ran roughly during 1793–94. It began with the fall of the moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins’ accession to power. As the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety, which in turn controlled the legislature (the Convention), the disputes among their factions sharpened. After an interregnum of shared power, Robespierre became dictator, and the Terror started in earnest. It took the form of the arrest, show trial, and execution of thousands of people, including the leaders of the Girondins and the opposing Jacobin factions, who were suspected of opposing—actively or passively, actually or potentially—the policies Robespierre dictated.

Robespierre’s constituency outside the Convention was the mob, roaming the streets of Paris, the center of the Revolution. Large parts of France were hardly involved; for most people, life went on during the Revolution much as before. The mob in Paris consisted largely of destitute sans-culottes (“without knee breeches”), who maintained themselves by a mixture of crime, prostitution, begging, and odd jobs. Robespierre and his followers incited them to action whenever political expediency called for it. But even when unincited, having nothing better to do, they formed the crowd that watched the public executions, jeered and abused those about to die, rejoiced at the severed heads, adulated the leaders temporarily in power, and cursed them after they fell. Like flies, they were everywhere as the Revolution went on its bloody way. Their enraged, expectant buzzing formed the ghastly background of the slaughter of the innocents.

Historical distance and revolutionary rhetoric must not be allowed to obscure the Terror’s savagery. The descriptions that follow are only a few among many that could be given. Stanley Loomis writes in Paris in the Terror that, in the September massacres of 1792, “the bloody work went on for five . . . days and nights. On the morning of the third, the prison of La Force was entered and here took place the murder of the Princesse de Lamballe. . . . The frenzy of the crazed and drunken murderers appears to have reached its highest pitch at La Force. Cannibalism, disembowelment and acts of indescribable ferocity took place here. The Princess . . . refused to swear her hatred of the King and Queen and was duly handed over to the mob. She was dispatched with a pike thrust, her still beating heart was ripped from her body and devoured, her legs and arms were severed from her body and shot through cannon. The horrors that were then perpetrated on her disemboweled torso are indescribable. . . . It has been loosely assumed . . . that most of the other victims were, like herself, aristocrats—an assumption that for some curious reason is often supposed to mitigate these crimes. Very few victims were, in fact, of the former nobility—less than thirty out of the fifteen hundred who were killed.”

What Robespierre had unloosed were the most depraved urges of society’s dregs. The resulting anarchy temporarily served his purpose, much as the Kristallnacht served Hitler’s, the purges Stalin’s, and the cultural revolution Mao’s. Each perpetrated the terror to frighten opponents into abject submission and establish himself more firmly in power.

Having secured Paris, in 1793 Robespierre appointed commissioners to enforce his interpretation of the Revolution outside the capital. In the city of Lyon, writes Simon Schama in Citizens, the guillotine began its work, but it was found to be “a messy and inconvenient way of disposing of the political garbage. . . . A number of the condemned, then, were executed in mass shootings. . . . [A]s many as sixty prisoners were tied in a line by ropes and shot at with cannon. Those who were not killed outright by the fire were finished off with sabers, bayonets, and rifles. . . . By the time that the killings . . . had finished, one thousand nine hundred and five people had met their end.” The commissioner in Nantes “supplemented the guillotine with . . . ‘vertical deportations.’ . . . Holes were punched in the sides of . . . barges. . . . Prisoners were put in with their hands and feet tied and the boats pushed into the center of the river. . . . [The] victims helplessly watched the water rise about them. . . . [P]risoners were stripped of their clothes and belongings . . . [Y]oung men and women [were] tied naked together in the boats. Estimates of those who perished in this manner vary greatly, but there were certainly no fewer than two thousand.”

In the Vendéan massacre, recounts Schama, “Every atrocity the time could imagine was meted out to the defenseless population. Women were routinely raped, children killed, both mutilated. . . . At Gonnord . . . two hundred old people, along with mothers and children, [were forced] to kneel in front of a large pit they had dug; they were then shot so as to tumble into their own grave. . . . Thirty children and two women were buried alive when earth was shoveled onto the pit.” In Paris, Loomis writes, Robespierre ordered the kangaroo court, known as the Revolutionary Tribunal, to be “as active as crime itself and conclude every case within twenty-four hours.” “The victims were shepherded to the courtroom in the morning and, no matter how many of them there might be, their fate was settled by no later than two in the afternoon of that same day. By three o’clock their hair had been cut, their hands bound and they were in the death carts on their way to the scaffold.” “Between June 10 and July 27 [1793] . . . 1,366 victims perished.” Most of these people were innocent of any crime and were unable to defend themselves against accusations of which they were not even informed.

These atrocities were not unfortunate excesses unintended by Robespierre and his henchmen but the predictable consequences of the ideology that divided the world into “friends” and less-than-human “enemies.” The ideology was the repository of the true and the good, the key to the welfare of humanity. Its enemies had to be exterminated without mercy because they stood in the way. As the ideologues saw it, the future of mankind was a high enough stake to justify any deed that served their purpose. As Loomis puts it, “[A]ll who played a role in the drama . . . believed themselves motivated by patriotic and altruistic impulses. All . . . were able to value their good intentions more highly than human life. . . . There is no crime, no murder, no massacre that cannot be justified, provided it be committed in the name of an Ideal.”

The ideal, however, was simply what Robespierre said it was. And the law was what Robespierre and his followers willed it to be. They changed it at will and determined whether its application in a particular case was just. The justification of monstrous actions by appealing to a passionately held ideal, elevated as the standard of reason and morality, is a characteristic feature of political ideologies in power. For the Communists, it was a classless society; for the Nazis, racial purity; for Islamic terrorists, their interpretation of the Koran. The shared feature is that the ideal, according to its true believers, is immune from rational or moral criticism, because it determines what is reasonable and moral.

Norman Hampson notes in his biography of Robespierre that “the revolutionary tribunal . . . had become an undiscriminating murder machine. . . . Imaginary . . . plots and absurd charges were everyday events.” As Robespierre put it, “Let us recognize that there is a conspiracy against public liberty. . . . What is the remedy? To punish the traitors.” Hampson writes: “Robespierre took the attitude that clemency . . . was a form of sentimental self-indulgence that would have to be paid for in blood.” He declared: “There are only two parties in France: the people and its enemies. We must exterminate those miserable villains who are eternally conspiring against the rights of man. . . . [W]e must exterminate all our enemies.”

Robespierre, recounts Schama, “rejoiced that ‘a river of blood would now divide France from its enemies.’ ”

The result of this climate of hysteria was Robespierre’s Decree of the 22nd Prairial. It “expressed in principle the views of the whole Committee [of Public Safety],” writes J. M. Thompson in his biography of Robespierre. “The Committee was fanatical enough to approve, and the Convention powerful enough to enforce, as a New Model of Republican justice . . . a law which denied to prisoners the help of counsel, made it possible for the court to dispense with witnesses, and allowed no sentence except acquittal or execution; a law which, at the same time, defined crimes against the state in such wide terms that the slightest indiscretion might bring one within the article of death. To any right-minded or merciful man such procedure must seem a travesty of justice.”

Empowered by this model republican justice, the Revolutionary Tribunal sent to death 1,258 people in nine weeks, as many as during the preceding 14 months. “The inescapable fact” about Robespierre, notes Hampson, is that “under a judicial system which he initiated and helped to direct . . . a government of which he was, perhaps, the most influential member, perpetrated the worst enormities of the Terror. . . . [N]o defence is possible for the wholesale massacres . . . in which . . . an average rate of thirty-six [persons] a day were sent to the guillotine.”

Robespierre “became as incapable of distinguishing right from wrong—not to say cruelty from humanity—as a blind man is of distinguishing night from day.” Let us now try to understand his frame of mind.

Robespierre was born in 1758 in the town of Arras. His father was a feckless lawyer; his mother, the daughter of a brewer, died in childbirth when Robespierre was six. A few months after her death, the father deserted his four young children. Robespierre and his brother went to live with their maternal grandparents. At 11, not an unusual age in those days, Robespierre won a scholarship to the University of Paris. After ten years there, he emerged with a law degree, returned to Arras, and started to practice law. In early 1789, he won election to the Convention as a representative of the Third Estate in Arras. Beginning as a fairly radical democrat, he became, as the Revolution unfolded, more and more radical.

Robespierre never married. He was not known to have had any love affairs. Nor did he have any interest in sex, money, food, the arts, nature, or indeed anything but politics. He was about five feet three inches tall, with a slight build, a small head on broad shoulders, and light chestnut hair. He had “nervous spasms which occasionally twisted his neck and shoulders, and showed themselves in the clenching of his hands, the twitching of his features, and the blinking of his eyelids,” says Thompson. He dressed fashionably and wore glasses, “which he was in the habit of pushing up onto his forehead . . . when he wished to look anyone in the face.” “His habitual expression seemed to his friends melancholy, and his enemies arrogant; sometimes he would laugh with the immoderateness of a man who has little sense of humor; sometimes the cold look softened into a smile of ironic and rather alarming sweetness.” With his shrill, rough voice, “[h]is power as a speaker . . . lay less in the manner of his delivery, than in the seriousness of what he had to say, and the deep conviction with which he said it.”

Robespierre made no secret of his convictions. He expressed them in several crucial speeches, of which copies, written in his own hand, remain. In his August 1792 speech, Robespierre said that France was living through one of the great events in human history. After an initial period of stumbling, the Revolution of 1789 became in August 1792 “the finest revolution that has ever honored humanity, indeed the only one with an object worthy of man: to found political societies at last on the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason.” The Revolution was the finest ever, because, for the first time in history, “the art of government” aimed not at “deceiving and corrupting man” but at “enlightening them and making them better.” The task of the Revolution was “to establish the felicity of perhaps the entire human race.” “The French people seems to have out-distanced the rest of the human race by two thousand years.”

But a serious obstacle barred the way. “Two opposing spirits . . . [are] contending for domination . . . [and] are fighting it out in this great epoch of human history, to determine for ever the destinies of the world. France is the theater of this terrible combat.” The conflicts between the friends and the enemies of the Revolution “are merely the struggle between private interests and the general interest, between cupidity and ambition on the one hand and justice and humanity on the other.” All the current political choices, consequently, were choices between good and evil, allowing Robespierre to demonize his opponents.

Note that in declaring his aim to be a society in which “the immortal principles of equality, justice and reason” would prevail, Robespierre simply dropped liberty and fraternity, substituting whatever he regarded as justice and reason. The justification of the massacres was that those killed were enemies of the republic, counterrevolutionaries who had conspired against that equality, justice, and reason whose realization would “establish the felicity of perhaps the entire human race.” The pivot on which all turned was those principles of equality, justice, and reason, which Robespierre spelled out in a declaration that formed the basis of the Constitution of 1793. Some extracts: “Article 1. The object of every political association is to safeguard the natural and imprescriptible rights of men.” “Article 3. . . . rights belong equally to all men, whatever their physical and moral differences.” “Article 4. Freedom is the right of every man to exercise all his faculties at will. Its rule is justice, its limits are the rights of others, its source is nature, its guarantee is the law.” “Article 6. Any law which violates the imprescriptible rights of man is essentially unjust and tyrannical.”

How did Robespierre actually interpret these principles? He said: “[W]e must exterminate all our enemies with the law in our hands”; “the Declaration of Rights offers no safeguard to conspirators”; “the suspicions of enlightened patriotism might offer a better guide than formal rules of evidence.” Commenting on an execution, he said: “Even if he had been innocent he had to be condemned if his death could be useful.” In a letter advising the Revolutionary Tribunal, he wrote: “People are always telling judges to take care to save the innocent; I tell them . . . to beware of saving the guilty.”

Collot, the official commissioner he personally appointed to supervise the massacres, expressed succinctly their shared interpretation of the principles enshrined in the Declaration: “The rights of man are made, not for counter-revolutionaries, but only for sans-culottes.”

Saint-Just, Robespierre’s closest ally, said: “[T]he republic consists in the extermination of everything that opposes it.”

The inconsistency between the Declaration, providing the basis of the constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all citizens, and the actual policies that Robespierre dictated and that his followers enforced, was so blatant as to require an explanation. This Robespierre provided in a speech in December 1793.

“The object of a revolutionary regime is to found a republic; that of a constitutional regime is to carry it on. The first befits a time of war between liberty and its enemies; the second suits a time when freedom is victorious, and at peace with the world.” The current regime in France was revolutionary, he argued, struggling to become constitutional. But internal enemies threatened the successful completion of this struggle. “Under a constitutional regime,” he went on, “little is needed but to protect the individual citizen against abuse of power by the government; but under a revolutionary regime the government has to defend itself against all the factions which attack it; and in this fight for life only good citizens deserve public protection, and the punishment of the people’s enemies is death.” The revolutionary regime “must be as terrible to the wicked as it is favorable to the good.”

There was, therefore, no inconsistency between the Declaration and the Terror. “The Declaration of Rights offers no safeguard to conspirators who have tried to destroy it.” The Declaration guided the constitutional regime whose establishment was the ultimate aim. The Terror was merely the means to it, forced on the revolutionary regime by enemies who prevented the realization of the constitutional regime.

This piece of sophistry was then new, but to those who look back on the twentieth century it is depressingly familiar from the use that many murderous regimes have made of it. They all claimed that their aim was human well-being, but that incorrigibly wicked enemies, who have disguised their true nature and conspired against the noblest of aims, threatened its achievement. The supposed threat was so serious, and the aim so important, as to warrant extreme, albeit temporary, measures—to identify enemies, unmask their conspiracies, and exterminate them. To a handful of clear-sighted and courageous heroes of the revolution—like the KGB, the SS, and the Red Guard—falls the duty of performing these necessary tasks. They must harden their hearts and do what needs to be done in the interest of the greater good. The grave threat averted, the extreme measures will no longer be necessary, and then human well-being will be within everyone’s reach.

A remarkable feature of the ideological frame of mind is that those in its grip actually believe these justifications for disemboweling, lynching, mutilating, burying alive, drowning, and hacking to pieces their unfortunate victims. In fact, the atrocities only strengthen the utter certainty with which ideologues hold their convictions and impose their aim.

An ideology is a worldview that makes sense of prevailing political conditions and suggests ways of improving them. Typical ideologies include among their elements a metaphysical outlook that provides a God’s-eye view of the world, a theory about human nature, a system of values whose realization will supposedly ensure human well-being, an explanation of why the actual state of affairs falls short of perfection, and a set of policies intended to close the gap between the actual and ideal. This last component—commitment to a political program and its implementation—is what distinguishes ideologies from religious, personal, aesthetic, or philosophical systems of belief. Ideologies aim to transform society. Other systems of belief do not involve such a commitment; if they do, they become ideological.

In the course of history, many different and incompatible ideologies have held sway, all of them essentially speculative interpretations that go beyond undeniable facts and simple truths. Resting on fallible hypotheses about matters that transcend the existing state of knowledge, they are especially prone to wishful, self-deceiving, anxious, or self-serving thinking—to unchecked flights of fantasy and imagination. Reasonable people therefore regard ideologies, including their own, with robust skepticism and demand of them conformity to elementary standards of reason: logical consistency, the explanation of indisputable and relevant facts, responsiveness to new evidence and serious criticism, and recognition that the success or failure of policies derived from them counts as confirming or disconfirming evidence.

The source of Robespierre’s deepest convictions and of his certainty about them was his unquestioning commitment to an ideology he had largely derived from Rousseau, whom he regarded as “the tutor of the human race.” This ideology led him to believe that politics was an application of morality and that a good government was based on moral principles that ineluctably cause the interests of individuals to become indistinguishable from the general interest. Put another way, uncorrupted human beings intuitively recognize and act in the general interest. Any divergence between individual and general interest indicates the individual’s immorality and irrationality. If any individual fails to see that his true interests are the same as the general interest, he must be forced to act as if he did see it, for his own good.

But who are those uncorrupted human beings who know what is in the general interest? Robespierre answers: “There do exist pure and sensitive souls. There does exist a tender, but imperious and irresistible passion . . . a profound horror of tyranny, a compassionate zeal for the oppressed, a sacred love of one’s country, and a love of humanity still more holy and sublime, without which a great revolution is no more than the destruction of a lesser by a greater crime. There does exist a generous ambition to found on earth the first republic in the world. . . . You can feel it, at this moment, burning in your hearts; I can feel it in my own.” The plain message when the bombast is deflated is that, since the people have been corrupted, they cannot be trusted to know what is good for them, but he, Robespierre, knows, because he is uncorrupted.

If he had left it at that, his belief in his own purity would be no more than a megalomaniac’s offensive folly. But he did not leave it at that. He regarded it as his duty to coerce the corrupted population to live according to what he in his purity regarded as virtue. He said: “The enemies of the Republic are cowardly egoists, the ambitious and the corrupt. You have driven out the kings, but have you driven out those vices that their fatal domination bred within you?” Robespierre convinced himself—and coerced others to believe or pretend to believe—that his will was the general will, the will that everyone would act on if everyone were as pure as he. When he encountered opposition, he knew with absolute certainty that his opponents were either vicious and had to be exterminated for the common good, or were ignorant and had to be coerced for their own good to act as if they were as pure and virtuous as he.The basis of Robespierre’s ideology was not reason but passion, which became his touchstone of reason and morality. He did not ask whether he should nurture that passion, whether it was an appropriate reaction to the facts, whether it was too strong, or whether he should be guided by it. The aim of his politics was to make the world fit his passion, not vice versa. The result was that he blinded himself to the actual requirements of reason and morality and decreed the murder of thousands simply because he suspected that they might disagree with his passionately held views. All the while, he self-righteously proclaimed that his vicious actions were virtuous and that he was the champion of reason and morality.

It may be said in a misguided attempt to defend Robespierre that he sincerely believed his ideology and acted on it in good faith; people can do no more than that. Of course, if this excuse were valid, it would, absurdly, excuse SS concentration-camp guards, if they were sincere Nazis; KGB torturers, provided they were committed Communists; or Islamic terrorists, if they are truly fanatical. But the reprehensible beliefs of the ideologues strengthen rather than weaken responsibility for such actions. One wants to say that people ought not hold beliefs from which monstrous actions follow. And this is just what is right to say in response to any effort to excuse Robespierre. If his ideology led him to mass murder, he should not have held it.

Many people, of course, do not choose the ideology they hold but acquire it through indoctrination. It may be too much to demand of them to resist indoctrination, if it is persistent and sophisticated, and if they know of no reasonable alternatives. Not being able to resist ideological indoctrination, however, is one thing; committing atrocities in its name is quite another. People do have a choice as to whether they torture or murder. Decent people will question their ideology if they see that it leads to inflicting horrors. And if they do not question it and commit atrocities, then they are justly held responsible not for what they believe but for what they have done.

Robespierre, however, was not indoctrinated. He constructed his ideology himself, from his readings, education, and early political experience. As a lawyer trained to sift through evidence and evaluate the interpretations of facts, he had the ability to think critically about his ideology; yet he did not. He is, therefore, responsible for the mass murder he caused. And the same is true of countless Communists, Nazis, Maoists, and terrorists who chose their ideology in preference to readily available alternatives of which they could not be ignorant.

But why did all those follow Robespierre who did not share either his ideology or his monstrous passion? Many followed because he let them act on their worst urges, which they had to suppress when law and order prevailed.

Others—overwhelmed by the political changes, by the widespread chaos and uncertainty, by the blood that had already been shed—yearned to understand what was going on, what justified it, and what its aim was. Many people accepted Robespierre’s explanation, bombast and implausibility notwithstanding, because any explanation of what they were living through was better than no explanation.

But the chief reason that people followed him was fear. No one was safe, and people hastened to testify by words and deeds that they were loyal, enthusiastic supporters. Robespierre wielded his power over life and death as arbitrarily as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao did. Arbitrariness is the key to terror: if there are no rules, justifications, or reasons, then everyone is at risk. People can try to minimize the risk only by outdoing others in toeing the line. Dictators understand that, and it explains much of the “spontaneous demonstrations” and public adulation that they extract from the duped and terrified people at their mercy.

Robespierre, who saw himself as a romantic hero battling against great odds, yearned for power and was indifferent to the cost of achieving it. When he succeeded in concocting an ideology from the flotsam of Rousseau’s ideas and other bits and pieces, he held on to it with fanatical dedication, for it provided him not merely with a political program but also with a justification of his quest for power. In a strangely closed circle, when he perpetrated the monstrous acts of the Terror, he took their very monstrosity as evidence of the purity of his motivation and convictions. He and his fellow ideologues were the elect whose passions guided them to know good and evil, truth and falsehood, however obscene or forbidden their actions might appear to the unelect.

Though Nazism, Communism, various kinds of terrorism, and white, black, and yellow racism demonstrate how easily ideologies lead to inhumanity, not even irrational and immoral ideologies lead necessarily to mass murder, of course. Ideologues must have the opportunity to act in accordance with their beliefs—opportunities that spring from the combination of deep and widespread resentment about the burden that people must bear, weak or weakening government, and no prospect of quick and substantial improvement. It was the presence of these conditions that permitted Robespierre to become the monster he was.

Castigating Robespierre more than 200 years after his death would have little point if he were not the prototype of the ideological frame of mind that is very much with us today. If we understand him, we understand that it is utterly useless to appeal to reason and morality in dealing with ideologues. For they are convinced that reason and morality are on their side and that their enemies are irrational and immoral simply because they are enemies. Negotiation with such people can succeed only if we have overwhelming force on our side and have shown ourselves unsqueamish about using it. Justifying its use to the electorate of a democratic country—used to thinking of politics as a process of reasonable negotiation and compromise—must involve showing in sickening detail the monstrosities committed in the name of the ideology. And that is the point of reminding ourselves of the crimes of the long-dead Robespierre.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next